By Jesse Schedeen
Occasionally pop culture celebrities will dabble in the world of comic books. Even Mr. T had his own series for a while, and we wouldn’t have learned the virtues of drinking our milk without it. On the whole, these celebrity-penned books are forgettable and wind up in the bargain bins at your local comic shop.One recent and notable exception was Umbrella Academy. This mini-series was written by Gerard Way, the lead singer of the band My Chemical Romance. The book followed seven former child superheroes as they deal with life as adults and the death of their adopted father. The series sported a zany, Grant Morrison-esque feel that was well complemented by the stylistic visuals of Gabriel Ba. All six issues met with critical praise, including from our own Review Crew.
With the trade paperback now appearing on store shelves, we figured it was as good a time as any to give Way a call and find out how this strange series was born. Way told us about his early influences, his original dream of becoming a comic book artist, and how he eventually brought Umbrella Academy to Dark Horse. He also reveals some early details about the Umbrella sequels (yes, sequels). If you loved the original, 2008 will be the start of a beautiful friendship with the members of Umbrella Academy.
IGN Comics: I know that you studied art in college in hopes of becoming a comic book artist. Can you talk a little about what those early years were like?
Gerard Way: Sure. I went to SVA [The School of Visual Arts in NYC]. I really loved comics and I made the decision around 16 to go to art school. I decided that pretty early in high school. Which is kind of cool, because at that point, if you’ve made the right decisions you can do things accordingly. So I took almost totally art classes, and by senior year I was taking a mixed media/graphic design course – basically a class that lasted all day and let me get out early to go do work study. I knew pretty early on that I enjoyed doing it, and I wanted to be a comic artist at that point.
Basically I went to SVA after that, and after my first foundation year my major became cartooning. A lot of the real comic greats were my instructors – Joe Orlando, before he passed away, and Carmen Infantino. Those were the real old school guys, and I had them as instructors. I also had Joey Cavalieri, who was my writing instructor. I had Klaus Janson, who actually dealt a lot with story at that point. I had the full spectrum of comic artists and writers as my instructors.
Then I graduated with a B.F.A. And tried to break into comics. It was extremely difficult – a very, very bad time in comics. It’s not like it is now, where I’m sure it’s still extremely hard, but back then it was almost impossible to get your foot in the door.
IGN Comics: I can imagine. What books were you reading at the time?
Way: I was heavily into Vertigo at the time. Around the time I was 16, when I decided I wanted to get into comics I also decided I had a very specific kind of comic I liked. It came from reading Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, which to me was like the perfect bridge. It was this very postmodern superhero thing, so it was still kindled the nostalgia I had for superheroes from when I was a little kid reading X-Men. But it also had the grown-up sensibility and the risk-taking and the tongue-in-cheek quality. That was almost my niche. There was nothing else like Doom Patrol for me, but I also loved Sandman. I read the s*** out of Preacher. To me, Preacher is still one of the best comics in a very long time. I read that thing every few years – the whole run again. So it was really Preacher, Sandman, and anything Grant did.
I guess about the time I was at SVA was when Joey turned me onto Al Columbia, and that was kind of a turning point for me. I didn’t realize comics be that way. He got me The Biologic Show #0 and #1 and that really changed my art style. After seeing Al’s work that really pushed me in a more visceral direction and it moved me away from superheroes. So that’s actually why I had such a difficult time trying to break into comics as a penciler. I was basically trying to fake it and no one was buying it. I was trying to draw this Spider-Man stuff or some Superman pages, but it had no passion to it because I didn’t have the passion.
IGN Comics: Right.
Way: I had a passion for stuff that was way more subversive, and my art style had changed accordingly. I was trying to fake the superhero stuff and it just wasn’t working. It was way too European-influenced at the time.
IGN Comics: So eventually you changed course and went off into the world of music. What made you finally decide to turn your attention back to comics after all that time?
Way: I think what happened was I missed it so much. That was the big thing. The band allowed me to be creative, and that was awesome. I got to draw a ton. But then I started to realize that there will eventually come a point in the band when I won’t be able to draw much anymore. There’s going to come a day where there aren’t costumes, you know? There won’t be these elaborate sets. That’s going to change at some point in order for us to find new places musically and aesthetically. That’s eventually going to have to change.
I just really missed drawing and designing. I was reading comics on the road, but the thing that ignited it was the reprinting of Doom Patrol, which to me was the first postmodern superhero comic. When those trades started to come out again I decided I was going to do this. There’s nobody else doing this right now, and it hasn’t been done in a long time. I didn’t want to copy it, but I was going to be inspired by it and try to make a comic that is a superhero comic but is not a superhero comic. It was that, and it was also getting clean and sober and having a lot of free time.
IGN Comics: Can you describe the genesis of Umbrella Academy and basically how it went from being an idea in your head to an actual printed comic on the stands?
Way: It really started aesthetically. I think a lot of things I do, even in music, starts aesthetically and starts with a vision. The visions in my head and the images that come to me is just like the writing and the story in a comic. Let’s say music and story are the same thing. Those things come second. Not that they aren’t as important, that’s just the order they come to me.
The genesis of it was me thinking to myself – if David Lynch was commissioned to direct X-Men and they gave him complete free reign with no studio breathing down his neck, what would he make it look like? In the end I didn’t totally end up there, but I ended up with something that was definitely visually odd. I would draw these characters that looked very interesting together and had interesting problems. If the power was clever, like The Rumor’s power, they had to be in the group. The Kraken, for example, provided an interesting challenge for me, which is why I included him. Basically, I wanted to see if I could make a character like Aquaman really work and make somebody like that actually cool. His powers aren’t really even as powerful as Aquaman’s. It’s along the same vein, you know?
So it was things like that. Whatever challenge I wanted to overcome. It was little games that I’d play with myself. Could I make a guy with a gorilla body come off as heroic as Superman? He looks complete bizarre. How can I get people to care about him like they do Superman? Once the characters all found their voice and purpose the story built itself around their personalities. Originally Vanya had started as White Violin and then I decided it would be much more interesting to show this character evolve and become this evil character with an extremely interesting power. Then the story ended up being not only about a family, but Vanya became the linchpin. That character basically helped me structure the story.
IGN Comics: How fully formed was the project by the time you approached Dark Horse with it? How much did it change when you had to sit down and officially script it?
Way: The big things that changed were that it became more free, but it also became important to me as the writer that the story become extremely tight and worked as a comic. It needed to be six parts. It needed to feel like a great first showing – an origin without really being an origin. I wanted to start at the most exciting part to me, which is the middle of things. Not the beginning or end of things, but to show a point in the kids’ lives after when they were famous. That’s interesting to me.
When I brought it to Dark Horse it was pretty tight. I broke down all the issues in the proposal and not much changed after that. I think Tusslin’ Tom was originally a boxer, and I made him a pro wrestler. Certain little things changed. Tom was supposed to have a bigger role and he got cut out just because I didn’t have the room. Little things changed, and the book got to develop its own voice, but it was pretty much locked in there.
IGN Comics: I imagine it was pretty difficult to write a comic book when you’ve got all the pressures of touring and promoting an album.
IGN Comics: Can you talk about what it was like trying to juggle your music duties with trying to put together Umbrella Academy?
Way: It was a huge challenge. Luckily, once you make a record and put it out into the world, creatively that part is done. You can reinterpret it live, but you’re not putting out anything else at that point. You’re supporting what you put out and you’re standing behind it. You try to interpret the music live.
The creation process for me was over, so it left me with a lot of free time to be creative. What it didn’t leave me with was normal hours in which to operate. Scott [Allie] is the real reason this thing stayed on track. If I was in Tokyo – no matter where I was – he was hammering me and just keeping me on a schedule. He was very cool.
But it was extremely difficult. I finished the last issue in Malaysia, for example. There was probably a 13-hour time difference or something crazy when I sent in the final draft. Just things like that, having to ask, “What day is it where you are? Where I am it’s a different day so it’s not late yet.”
IGN Comics: [laughs]
Way: So, things like that.
IGN Comics: How did you end up choosing Gabriel Ba as your artist?
Way: That was a long process. I wasn’t going to settle and I needed the perfect person. Scott had sent me a big box of stuff, a lot of which I loved. None of it felt right. I wasn’t trying to find somebody who drew like me, I was just trying to find someone who was better than me in a lot of ways. Someone who could interpret it, not in an eye-candy sort of way, but someone who could get in really dirty with their hands and just tell the story very well and make it look visually interesting.
He sent me this comic called Rock & Roll that Gabriel did with his brother. I loved the book, but it was extremely loose and experimental – which I love and wanted in Umbrella – but I couldn’t tell yet whether the guy would even enjoy doing a superhero comic. So Scott told me to go check out Casanova. I went down to a comic shop and picked up Casanova, and right away I knew. I knew I would use him differently than Matt Fraction. Fraction did great things with Gabriel and his brother. I saw something in his art and I knew I was going to use things like full tier, three-panel pages. If you pick up an issue of Casanova sometimes there are ten panels on a page. That’s what Fraction does, and he’s great at it. I knew I wanted a slower pacing. I knew as soon as I saw the issue that, not only could Gabriel work, but in a completely different way that wouldn’t look like Casanova at all.
IGN Comics: I’m curious – If you didn’t have all the pressures of being a rock star and you had the time to sit down and draw the book as well as write it, would you have gone that route?
Way: I don’t really think so. Well – yeah – in a perfect world. I love drawing. I think for me, the older you get and the more you work creatively, the more you start to realize your true strengths and weaknesses. I simply don’t think I have the discipline to do what Gabriel does in the format he does it in. If I drew the comic it would probably be in some kind of bizarre format and be something more like Al Columbia’s work. I would labor over it in a certain way, whereas Gabriel just got it. He’s very free. He’s doing it in a new way, but he can tell a traditional comic story. I don’t think I could do that. I don’t have the discipline to sit there and grind it out, in a sense, but make it amazing at the same time. I think eventually my stuff would just look grinded out.
Ultimately, for this comic, I think one of the reasons it works so well is because we’re a team on it. My favorites have always been teams – whenever Grant works with a great artist. I like teams. I think guys like Frank Miller can do great work on their own. But I’m not Frank Miller. I don’t have what he has, you know?
IGN Comics: The ending to Umbrella Academy left it pretty open. Do you have any definite plans for a sequel right now?
Way: I just finished the first script a while ago. Actually, Gabriel’s already drawing the first issue of Series 2. We kind of talked about it as we were wrapping up Series 1. It was important for us to go right into Series 2. I wasn’t going to do it unless I had a story, but thankfully I had five or six that we could have used. The one we’re using is actually one that was supposed to come later. But that’s the beauty of Umbrella Academy – we don’t try to save anything. Grant gave me some amazing advice. He said, “Don’t save your ideas. Use them all up and then come up with new ones. Don’t hold onto anything.” I took that advice.
We also wanted to send a message that said this wasn’t a vanity project or a one-off. This is a comic that, very much like Hellboy, will continue when I have stories. If I don’t have a story it might be a few years before you get a new Umbrella. But as long as I’ve got stories there’s no reason to sit on my ass. I need to just do them, you know? It was important for our readership to give them a new Umbrella series every year so that they don’t say, “Oh, I’m over that. I’m onto something else.”
IGN Comics: Especially since Gabriel is also working on the next chapter of Casanova right now, do you have any idea when the next series will start shipping?
Way: Yeah, it comes out starting in November. The first issue hits in late November, I think. It’s another six-issue story. And then I already know where Series 3 and 4 are going, so hopefully we can get started on those right away too. Series 2 is very different, and I’m excited about that.
What was difficult about Series 1 was trying to set up myself, not the readers, to have a really great sandbox in which to play. I had to set that up first, so I couldn’t just start playing in the sandbox. There are moments in Series 1 where I am just playing. I think that’s my favorite work – issue #5 is a good example, and the way issue #1 starts. That’s me saying, “F*** continuity, I’m just going to tell a good story.”
IGN Comics: Do you have any other plans in the world of comics, maybe with established properties or superheroes? You said when you originally tried to become a penciler you didn’t feel the passion, but has that changed at all over the years?
Way: I’ll always draw in the sense that I’m designing and redesigning and re-envisioning things. I do have other plans. They’re tentative right now. I’m talking to a few people and nothing is concrete, so it would be kind of rude for me to talk about it. But I am talking to a few people about doing stuff outside the realm of Umbrella.
The cool thing about it is that all the people I’m talking to are very much in the understanding that Umbrella is my baby and that’s the thing I work on every year. If I do something else it’s pretty much going to be limited. I do have plans, and some of them are extremely exciting for me. I try to keep my focus between working on that other stuff and working on Umbrella. Umbrella is kind of keeping me locked down right now because I’m just getting halfway through issue #2 and we’ve got another four-and-a-half issues to go.
IGN Comics: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk, Gerard. Hopefully we can talk again when Series 2 is closer to release.
Way: I appreciate it, Jesse.